02 ResurrexiResurrexi! – Easter in Vienna with Mozart and the Haydn Brothers
The Choir of Keble College Oxford; Instruments of Time & Truth; Paul Brough
CRD Records CR 3539 (keble.ox.ac.uk/about/music) 

It has been suggested that Mozart may have written sacred music to remain in favour with his patrons. This is unlikely, but even if it is true it makes no difference to the meaning of the music, for the music of Resurrexi – the Easter mass – expresses a deep, childlike and unquestioning faith, while being quintessentially Mozart: questing and pious, yet at the same time, irresistibly joyful. Director Paul Brough has added two additional pieces to this full mass: a Sequenza by Michael Haydn celebrating the paschal lamb which includes the plainchant; and the heartfelt and passionate Te Deum by the great Joseph Haydn that is, in every measure, as celebratory and full of nervous energy as the Mozart.

Brough espouses that this recording is an object lesson in the music of liturgy. Indeed there is a profound depth and beauty in the exemplary declamation of chants such as Vidi aquam and the Pater Noster, and fervent and thrilling singing through the Sequenza to the Te Deum, by the Choir of Keble College, Oxford. 

The choir has mastered sustained, seamless legato singing; complemented with sensitive accompaniments by the Instruments of Time and Truth, the music is revelatory and rewarding. Voices, brass and reeds, timpani and strings inhabit this Latin liturgy with unaffected brilliance striking gold from the opening Regina Cœli by Mozart to the fervent account of Haydn’s Te Deum at closing.

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03 Zandonai FrancescaRiccardo Zandonai – Francesca da Rimini
Sara Jakubiak; Jonathan Tetelman; Ivan Inverardi; Charles Workman; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Carlo Rizzi
Naxos 2.110711 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110711)

In The Divine Comedy’s circle of Hell reserved for “carnal sinners,” Dante encounters Francesca and Paolo, historical 13th-century lovers murdered by Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother Gianciotto. Their story, which left Dante “overcome with pity,” has inspired numerous composers, including Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, none more persuasively than Riccardo Zandonai, whose melody-soaked, intensely dramatic 1914 opera deserves much greater renown. (In 1984 the Metropolitan Opera, with stars Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo, brought it to Toronto’s International Festival; the DVD of this vocally and visually resplendent production is still available.)

Unlike the Met’s historically appropriate medieval splendour, this 2021 Deutsche Oper Berlin production is senselessly updated to the early 20th century, with Guelfs and Ghibellines somehow still at war, absurdly still fighting with crossbows. Silent actors wander around without apparent function or purpose; the chorus, due to COVID restrictions, sings offstage.

In contrast to the misconceived staging, this production’s musical values are superlative. Soprano Sara Jakubiak, the radiant Heliane in the Deutsche Oper DVD of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, is electrifying as the tormented Francesca. Jonathan Tetelman’s gleaming, clarion tenor and tall-dark-and-handsome looks make him an ideal Paolo, known as “Il Bello” (the Handsome). Heavy-set baritone Ivan Inverandi’s Gianciotto is suitably coarse in voice and appearance, though neither “crippled” nor “demonic” as described in the libretto. They and the other 12 fine soloists, together with Carlo Rizzi’s urgent, surging conducting of Zandonai’s impassioned score, deliver immensely rewarding operatic pleasures.

05 Stanley GrillStanley Grill – Und das Lied bleibt schön
Lisa Rombach; Nicholas Spanos; Pandolfis Consort
Gramola 90254 (stangrillcomposer.com) 

“I sometimes feel I was born 500 years too late,“ says New York native Stanley Grill (b.1953), alluding to his “passion” for the medieval and Renaissance music that imbues his melodies and the sonorities of the Vienna-based Pandolfis Consort’s four period instruments – viola d’amore, viola, cello and theorbo.

Predominantly slow, melancholy songs, composed between 2009 and 2020, traverse memory, mysticism, love, suffering and death. Viennese soprano Lisa Rombach brings poignant, expressive vibrato to settings of eight poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and three poems by Jewish women – Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), who survived the Holocaust and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924-1942), who didn’t (note her dates).

Greek countertenor Nicholas Spanos hauntingly evokes a medieval troubadour in Les Fugitifs (Rilke) while projecting a more Romantic sensibility in settings of Heinrich Heine’s Mit deinen blauen Augen and Ich wandle unter Blumen.

I most enjoyed seven songs in which Grill favours more contemporary melodic contours over early-music modality: Eingang and Klage (Rilke), Schnee and In jenen Jahren (Ausländer), the two Heine songs and Ein Schlaflied für dich (Meerbaum-Einsinger).

Grill channels Renaissance vibes in his three-movement instrumental Lieder ohne Worte (2009), its central Moderato providing one of the CD’s rare bits of energy. The prevailing moodiness makes this a disc best suited for dipping into. I would have welcomed some more up-tempo music and a clearer acoustic; perhaps the heavy reverb was intended to simulate the ambience of a medieval cathedral. Texts and translations are included.

06 Reves EnclosRêves Enclos – Mélodies de Louis Dominique Roy
Olivier Laquerre; Louis Dominique Roy
ATMA ACD2 2817 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Cégep de Saint-Laurent piano professor/pianist/composer Louis Dominique Roy set the poetry of numerous Quebec poets to create an accessible outstanding repertoire of vocal works from Quebec. As he writes in the liner notes, after realizing its need as a university vocal coach and accompanist, he composed over 60 works for all voices over nearly 25 years. Here, baritone Olivier Laquerre sings a number of these Québécois melodies to Roy’s piano accompaniment, with special guests cellist Sébastien Lépine and horn-player Louis-Philippe Marsolais on select tracks. Roy’s musical settings of poems by Émile Nelligan, Éloi de Grandmont, Alfred Desrochers, Arthur de Bussières, Hector de Saint-Denys-Garneau and Gilles Vigneault, as well as three Scandinavian poems about death translated into French, are included.

Roy respectfully sets the texts with masterful musical vocal lines and varying piano accompaniments. Nelligan’s Amour immaculé is Romantic flavoured, featuring a build to louder fuller piano chords under lower pitched quasi operatic vocals. Roy set three Grandmont poems for all four musicians especially for this recording. Held horn and vocal notes blend perfectly above detached piano chords, with closing movement adding cello plucks in L’âge des rêves. Lépine composed his own cello part to Roy’s setting of five Vigneault poems. Aubes is uplifting with lower vocals/piano contrasted by higher cello sounds. Great to hear Roy perform two of his solo piano works, especially the pianistic imagery of moving sea waves in Vol des oiseaux au-dessus de la mer.

All performances and compositions shine with literary and musical excitement.

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01 MessiahMessiah
Karina Gauvin; Ensemble Caprice; Ensemble Vocal Arts-Quéébec; Matthias Maute
Leaf Music LM247 (leaf-music.ca)

Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, German-born Matthias Maute and the ensembles he conducts, Ensemble Caprice and Ensemble Vocal Arts-Québec, present a new recording with highlights from Handel’s Messiah.

Although it would be easy to dismiss the recording as “another Messiah,” this interpretation is a unique and valuable contribution to the large number of recorded offerings of Messiah. Dictated by COVID restrictions in place at the time of recording, the chorus includes only 12 voices. Although, unlike the large choruses of contemporary times, this reading does somewhat align with musicological research that estimates the original performances of Messiah comprised only 16 men and/or 16 boy choristers. More controversial for Messiah and Baroque music purists are the many chorus sections with notable faster tempi than what modern ears are used to as well as unusual and sometimes chopped phrasing as in the opening of the “Hallelujah” chorus. 

Artistic choices notwithstanding, this Messiah offers an intimate experience that never feels underpowered because of its smaller effective. Both ensembles offer solid musicianship and musicality; Gauvin, renowned for her performances of Baroque repertoire, is at ease and delivers her usual abilities with elegance, depth and conviction.

The album also offers two new choral works Hope and Belief by Jaap Nico Hamburger on a text from Polish Jewish writer Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915) and O Magnum Mysterium by conductor Maute based on the sacred Latin text of the same name. Both works featured prominently in the Mini-Concerts Santé, a Maute initiative that provided uplifting concerts to thousands during the 2020 lockdown.

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02 Anna NetrebkoAmata Dalle Tenebre
Anna Netrebko; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala; Riccardo Chailly
Deutsche Grammophon B0034484-02 (deutschegrammophon.com)

The great soprano, Anna Netrebko, is the epitome of the larger-than-life opera star; a diva who ought to be credited with perpetuating the mysterious appeal of the genre. She has the prodigious gift not only of reaching extraordinarily high notes – her high C is sung with electrifying charisma – but she also graces the roles she brings to life with a tragic grandeur. There can also be no doubt that she is Riccardo Chailly’s operatic muse. The repertoire on Amata Dalle Tenebre certainly suggests that she has been so anointed – literally and figuratively – with the ink-black heartbreak of these arias. 

Netrebko can easily lay claim to being the diva assoluta of our time. The disc is kicked off by the dark honeyed voicing of Richard Strauss’ Es Gibt ein Reich, moulding the lyric from Ariadne auf Naxos as if with molten lava. Then she proceeds to unveil – from her palpitating heart – the elemental ache of her very being with her touching evocations of Verdi’s Aida, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut. Netrebko’s Dido from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a deeply cathartic evocation of grief.

Her Wagner is perfectly judged. Both arias: Dich, Teure Halle (Tannhäuser’s Elisabeth) and Einsam in Trüben Tagen (Lohengrin’s Elsa) are shaped in majesty and eloquence, transcending the pitch blackness of operatic emotions. Her Cilea is gorgeous, but the apogee of the disc is Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame in which Netrebko plays Lisa with unbuttoned authority and anguished poetic brilliance.

03 Henze Nachtstucke und ArienHenze – Nachtstücke und Arien; Los Caprichos; Englische Liebeslieder
Narek Hakhnazaryan; Juliane Banse; Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Marin Alsop
Naxos 8574181 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313418176)

Right from the start of Hans Werner Henze’s long and productive career, performers and audiences have connected viscerally with his music – some of the most lyrical, complex, passionate, committed, literate, uncompromising, provocative, confrontational and powerful of its time. Today, ten years after his death, it speaks to us just as directly as ever. 

The works on this recording were never among Henze’s best-known pieces, compelling though all three are. The one I find most moving is Englische Liebeslieder. This collection of love songs is based on poems by Shakespeare, the Earl of Rochester, Joyce and Graves. But the texts are never actually heard. Instead, they are interpreted by a solo cello. With cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan’s open-hearted lyricism, and the responsiveness of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony under chief conductor Marin Alsop, the effect is uncannily intimate – and utterly ravishing. 

In Nachtstücke und Arien, the arias are sung, to exquisite poems by Ingeborg Bachmann. But here the three dreamy instrumental movements work better than the two wistful arias. Soprano Juliane Banse captures the essential theatricality of Henze’s style. But her shrillness and pronounced vibrato dampen the mystery and magic for me.

Los Caprichos transports us to the world of foolishness and folly depicted in Goya’s series of 80 etchings of the same name. Under Alsop’s insightful direction the orchestra captures Henze’s brilliant characterizations, shapely phrases and delightfully clear textures, making this a disc well worth seeking out.

04 Sasha Cookehow do I find you
Sasha Cooke; Kirill Kuzmin
Pentatone PTC 5186961 (pentatonemusic.com/product/how-do-i-find-you)

American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a two-time Grammy Award winner. Her most recent album, how do I find you, features songs composed by numerous living American composers (Missy Mazzoli, Rene Orth, Frances Pollock, Hilary Purrington, Kamala Sankaram and Caroline Shaw) and written by many living American and Canadian poets and lyricists (Liza Balkan, Mark Campbell, David Henry Hwang and Colleen Murphy).

howdDo I find you is a digital only release in which Cooke partners up with collaborative pianist and Houston Grand Opera principal coach Kirill Kuzmin. Together, they perform 17 newly composed songs commissioned and curated by Cooke during the COVID-19 pandemic. Composers were given the opportunity to write about topics that spoke to them most during the pandemic and this resulted in a wide variety of themes related to the use of social media, social injustice, immigration and environmental concerns, as well as the familiar pandemic themes of working from home, work insecurity, pandemic parenting, general struggles and personal sacrifices. 

Although Cooke’s voice would gain from light text setting revisions and her interpretation of raw and unhinged feelings is, at times, too measured (Dear Colleagues), how do I find you is a compelling album. With music firmly situated in the contemporary American art-song style and up to date lyrics, Cooke and Kuzmin’s interpretations successfully portray the intricacies of pandemic life with relatable depth, seriousness, sarcasm and humour.

05 DiDonato EdenEDEN
Joyce DiDonato; Il Pomo D’Oro; Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato (joycedidonato.com/2021/12/07/eden)

Joyce DiDonato’s Eden invites us to examine our relationships and connections to the natural world by exploring themes of identity and belonging as well as our role and purpose in the healing of our planet, ourselves and one another. 

The repertoire offered crosses musical genres and eras, from classical Baroque songs from the 17th century to the modern contemporary and jazzy sounds of the 21st. The songs showcase themes of nature that have fascinated numerous composers, from Handel, Gluck and Mysliveček to Mahler, Ives and Copland. Eden also includes a world premiere recording of The First Morning of the World by Rachel Portman and Gene Scheer, commissioned for the album. 

DiDonato is a well-established versatile singer and little can be added to praise the quality of her voice, her technique, her creativity and her artistry, all equally displayed on Eden. Perhaps most notable is the care in curation which results in a cohesive product offering both vocal and instrumental works that efficiently cross the boundaries of musical genres and eras. 

DiDonato’s partners, Ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and the conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, are historical performance practice specialists and this is reflected throughout the album. Gluck’s instrumental piece Danza degli spettri e delle furie is especially delightful.

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